Guest blog: Cut and paste?
Cut and Paste?
by Dr Perry Share, Head of Department of Humanities at the Institute of Technology, Sligo
I was looking back at two earlier posts in this blog in April and July of this year, and was reflecting on how they relate relate to a topic that I have had a passing interest in (both intellectual and administrative) – that of plagiarism. Or, as I prefer to think of it, for reasons that will become apparent below, intertextuality.
Over the last year there was something of a mini-rash of alleged plagiarism cases at my institution. These were difficult to deal with, partly because the institution in question, like most of its counterparts in Ireland, does not have a well thought-through set of policies and procedures, which makes it rather exposed to even the idea of legal challenges; but also because any consensus that may have existed in relation to what plagiarism might be has become increasingly fragile in a world that is saturated with practices of re-use and re-purposing of intellectual property. It is no longer clear as to what it means to re-use another’s material and whether this is a good or a bad thing.
We live in a world where the reuse of written materials is ubiquitous, widely rewarded, sometimes celebrated and increasingly expected. Exhibit A is of course the Internet, where a Google search of any distinctive phrase will allow you the opportunity to trace its use and reuse through thousands if not millions of sites, though it may well be impossible to track down the original iteration. Exhibit B is the mass media, where pop music, popular film, fashion, advertising, commercial fiction, magazines routinely recycle and reuse concepts, phrases, images and storylines. Exhibit C is the world of routine administration, business and – yes – academia, where numerous documents, from contracts to safety statements to business plans to research funding applications are (re-) constructed unapologetically from commercially-available templates or, more often, from whatever worked before for somebody else.
Many academics and nearly all students have grown up in a world where the rules of intellectual property have been changing at a rapid pace. Most students live in a semiotic universe defined by the cut-and-paste culture of Bebo, YouTube, Photoshop and Facebook. They either download their music, images, TV shows and films illegally, or at least know people who do. They wear T-shirts that ironically (or unironically) reuse and recycle corporate logos and cultural imagery from the Mona Lisa to the GAA. They find most of their information in Wikipedia and Google Scholar and – quelle surprise! – put this into their essays and projects.
Just like the music and film industries, the academic system struggles to cope with this new culture of the copy. One way is to threaten stringent penalties for the ‘crime’ or ‘fraud’ of plagiarism, often so draconian that they are rarely if ever implemented. A second is to try to train students in the arcane rules and rituals of referencing and attribution – and of course the mastering of such techniques is a rite of passage of the successful scholar. A third approach is to seek a technological fix in turnitin.com – the ‘anti-plagiarism’ software that will allow for detection of the least sophisticated copiers. All of these approaches will of course have some ‘success’ in preventing students from copying material, or at least in making them feel guilty (or terrified, or confused) about it.
But what rarely happens is a fundamental questioning of why the culture of the copy is a problem in the first place. It is clear that without borrowing, cross-referencing, mimicry and copying – or intertextuality to give it a technical term – culture just could not exist. That which is completely original is of course uniquely unintelligible. In academia perhaps more than anywhere it is necessary to make products that are very similar to what has gone before – to show that you are really part of the academic community.
But in an age of ‘free culture’, ‘creative commons’, sampling, remixing, open-source, and on-line collaborative working, why do we continue to insist on the Romantic notions of ‘originality’ and individualistic intellectual production? Are there not ways that our teaching and learning practices can be remodelled to encourage genuine collaborative working, the constructive use and reuse of existing material, and the astute assessment of how to use templates, models and processes?
If the central theme of contemporary culture is the copy, how do we serve students by constantly urging them to come up with something ‘original’, while pretending that we are going to punish them if they don’t? Wouldn’t it be a lot better to help them to deal with the world as it really is?Explore posts in the same categories: culture, higher education comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.